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Philip Gibbs and Josepha Junnie Wailoni 
1. Introduction 

Speaking to an elderly Christian woman from the East Sepik Province 
about her attitude to sorcery, we proposed two possibilities: Did she 
think Sorcery was just superstition, so if she refused to believe in it, 
it would not affect her, or is it something which she thought she 
should take seriously but her faith as a Christian gives her protection 
against, so that Sorcery will not harm her? She considered the 
proposed options, but did not respond to either of them. Instead, she 
spoke about right relationships. "Lotu na kastam i wankain. Sapos 
mi abrusim mak o mi no givim samting long narapela man na mi 
haitim, ol bai kros na kilim mi long posin. Sapos mi laikim olgeta 
arapela man, mi no inap indai long posin" (Faith and traditional 
values are similar. If I contravene customs or laws or if I have 
something and I hide it and don't share it, others will become upset 
and resort to Sorcery. If I love and respect others, I don't have to 
worry about Sorcery.) She was combining indigenous and introduced 
Christian values to interpret the source of Sorcery in any lack of 
harmony and reciprocity in social relations. Our theoretical questions 
served little purpose for her, divorced as they were from the social 

This study is about Sorcery in one part of the East Sepik Province 
(ESP) (see Map 1) of Papua New Guinea (PNG). It will show how 
the English term "Sorcery" must be considered in a broad sense in 
order to take account of phenomena such as sanguma and 
witchcraft. It will note the great diversity that exists, even within 
the limited area covered by the study. Having described the context, 
and then Sorcery in its various forms, then the social implications 


Map 1. East Sepik Provincial map 


today, the question is raised as to how Christian churches can 
understand and best respond. Sorcery and Christian faith are inimical 
at the level of practice, yet, as indicated by the example above, they 
may co-exist conceptually. Christian faith seeks a life of harmony 
and promotes ways to counter the jealousy and fear associated with 

Here we use the term Sorcery (capitalised) to refer to a wide range 
of magical procedures that seek to influence events. How this term 
relates to concepts such as sanguma and witchcraft will be explored 
further in section 5 below. 

2. Method 

Following a review of relevant literature, the writers visited the ESP 
on two occasions - in May-June 2006 and May- June 2007 spending 
a total of five weeks in the field. Josepha Junnie Wailoni comes 
from Belegel village, some 15km West ofYangoru. The visit in 2006 
focused on the Arapesh speaking people in Belegel and nearby 

While conducting in-depth investigations among the Plains Arapesh 
the researchers were continually reminded of the diversity of belief 
and practice in other parts of the Sepik. Consequently, the second 
visit took in a broader field of study to include groups along the 
Sepik Highway as far as Drekikir and Aresili, returning to Wewak 
via Kunjingini near Maprik, then Wingei, Yangoru, Turingi, and 
Urigembi. The researchers also walked from Yangoru over the 
Prince Alexander Range to Alitoa where Margaret Mead had lived 
for eight months among the Mountain Arapesh (Gibbs and Wailoni 

The principal method in the field was to identify key persons in a 
given community and to conduct and record personal interviews 
with the help of a question guide. There were also focus group 
interviews with church and health workers. The study is limited to 
sites in the hill country between Wewak and Drekikir (see Map 2). 


It does not include coastal communities, the Sepik River or the 
mountain peoples south of the Sepik. 1 Being from the region, Josepha 
Wailoni was able to establish good contacts, however there were 
times, particularly when dealing with sanguma, when interviewees 
did not want information given to women. In such cases only men 
were present for the interviews and this paper will not describe 
details of some rituals and practices in deference to the wishes of 
these men. The research team conducted 5 1 interviews with over 
80 persons during the two visits to the ESP and in follow up 
discussions in Port Moresby. Interviewees in villages belonged to 
various Christian churches or to no church at all. All interviews 
were recorded and transcribed. 2 On a delicate issue, such as Sorcery, 
it could be that people might respond along the lines of, "We don't 
do that but those people over there do." However, we encountered 
very few responses of that kind and we feel confident that those 
we spoke to were honestly responding to our enquiries. 

The paper benefits from insights of functionalism, modernism, post- 
modernism and other recent theories, yet the main focus of the 
paper will be missiological, linking faith questions with a 
phenomenological approach based on ethnographic enquiry. 

Kairiru Is 



^b ft *^~^vMishu Is 

Arapesh prince Alexander mountains 


• Aresili,' 


• / 






• Urigembi 

Km 10 20 30 




Map 2. Research Area in the East Sepik Province 


3. The Context: People and Place 

3.1 Geography : The East Sepik Province occupies 43,700 km 2 in 
the northwest of PNG. The northern part of the province is dominated 
by the Wewak coastal plains and islands, the Torricelli Range and 
the Prince Alexander Range. South of these mountains is a large 
area of hill country that stretches from Drekikir in the west, to 
Angoram in the east. The middle of the province covers the plains, 
floodplains, swamps and lakes of the Sepik River and its tributaries. 
The Sepik Valley is around 80 km wide and 320 km long. South of 
the Sepik Valley are the rugged mountains of the Central Range, 
which extend into Enga Province and the Southern Highlands. The 
east of the ESP province consists of the mouth of the Sepik River 
and large areas of coastal swamp around the Murik Lakes. Altitude 
varies from sea level to over 3000 m on the Central Range (Hanson 
et al: 2006). The six districts in ESP are Ambunti-Drekikir, Angoram, 
Maprik, Wewak, Wosera-Gawi, and Yangoru-Saussia. According 
to the year 2000 census there were 343 ,181 persons in the province. 
Ethnographic data in this study is drawn from investigations in 
communities in five out of the six districts of the province. 

3.2 Languages 

As shown in the map above, the study site covers two major language 
groups of the Torricelli Phylum: Boikin and Abelam languages in the 
East and South and the Arapesh and Urat languages in the West. 
There are over ninety languages in the province, but the languages 
of the study site are first languages for a major part of the population 
of the ESP. Tok Pisin is the second principal lingua franca in the 
Province and is spoken by the vast majority of the Sepik people. 
Most of the interviews for this study were conducted in Tok Pisin. 

3.3 Economy and lifestyle 

The Sepik Highway runs from Wewak to Maprik through the areas 
which have the highest population densities in the province (Hanson 
et al: 207). People in the hills, between Drekikir and Yangoru, and 
on the coast and islands around Wewak, live within four hours' travel 
of Maprik or Wewak. Average incomes in the ESP are relatively 


low with the majority of the population working in non-monetary 
activities such as gardening or fishing for their own use (National 
Census 2000, Table DIB). People around Drekikir, Maprik and 
Yangoru earn moderate incomes from the sale of cocoa, coffee and 
fresh food. 

Those in the Sepik Valley and on the Wewak Coast earn low incomes 
from minor sales of fresh food, fish, cocoa and betel nut. There was 
a boom in sales of vanilla in the first years of the new millennium 
but this was short-lived. Cocoa is the main cash earning activity in 
the hill country where most villages have at least one fermentary. 

However, the marketing of cocoa is constrained by poor road 
maintenance. Despite a large migrant population outside the province, 
little money is remitted back to rural villages (Hanson et al: 209). 
There are no large-scale resource extraction industries in the 
province. Most people live by subsistence gardening of yam, taro 
and sago, supplemented by various other foods such as bananas, 
coconut and introduced vegetables like tomato and beans. 

Outside of the small "towns" like Yangoru and Maprik and well 
developed mission stations such as Kunjingini, people live in villages 
that range from hamlets with just a few homes, to large communities, 
such as Ilahita with over 2,000 inhabitants (Tuzin 1997: 53). 
Settlements are often on the crest of ridges on an area totally cleared 
of all grass and vegetation - what Tuzin describes as "swept tidiness 
verging on bleakness" (Tuzin 1976: 9). Land is held by patricians, 
though clan members may be scattered over a broad area in different 
hamlets or villages. 

Relations are generally classified according to the "Iroquois" system: 
mother's brother is "uncle" with his children called "cousin brother" 
or "cousin sister". New forms of leadership follow the system of 
Local Level Government with Wards and Ward Councillors. 
However, councillors often have little power or credibility unless 
they exhibit qualities of traditional leadership such as business 
acumen or the ability to establish social relationships. Traditionally 


in this area men's reputations depend greatly on their expertise as 
yam growers. Women have children - men grow yams. 

3.4 Health and Education Services 

The ESP province is well supplied with educational institutions 
including: 1 10 Primary Schools, 8 Secondary Schools, 1 National High 
School, 1 Teachers' Training college, and various other Vocational 
schools, Bible colleges, Seminaries, etc. In 2002, fifty four percent 
of students in primary education were at schools administered by 
churches. The existence of schools does not ensure the quality of 
education, nor does it mean that teachers and students will adopt a 
scientific-medical view of illness and death. 

The ESP has many health institutions including clinics, Aid Posts, 
Health Centres, Hospitals, and VCT & Day Care Centres. Other 
services are provided for the disabled by Callan Services. Of these, 
25 health centres and 23 Aid Posts, Callan services and most of the 
VCT & Day Care Centres are administered by the churches. It 
continues to be difficult to maintain health services in isolated rural 
areas of the Province. As will be noted further in this paper, Western 
medicine may be seen as having little relevance for sik bilongples 
(sicknesses perceived as having a social or spiritual cause, including 

3.5 Changes 

The Sepik River was the main route for migration and trade into the 
Highlands for thousands of years. Austronesian traders had contact 
with the Sepik Coastal areas from 4,000 years ago (Rynkiewich 
2004: 28). As early as 1887 the German steamer Samoa navigated 
380 miles up the Sepik River. By 1910 the lower Sepik was already 
a source of plantation workers, though there was little contact or 
control over the inland, non-riverine populations. The Sepik was 
first explored by a Hamburg museum expedition 1908-10, then by 
the German border-marking expedition of 1 9 1 0, and more thoroughly 
by Richard Thurawald for a joint expedition by German museums 
during 1912- 14. 3 Thurnwald passed near what is present-day 
Maprik. In 1912 Catholic missionaries Fr Eberhard Limbrock and 


Fr Franz Kirschbaum patrolled the Torricelli Ranges into the area 
near Yangoru (Limbrock 1913). Some missionaries left valuable 
ethnographic observations (Puff 1926; Gerstner 1934, 1937, 1952, 
1963; Aufenanger 1972, Gesch 1985, Schroeder 1992). The area 
came under Australian rule after the First World War only for this to 
change with the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. 
After the extensive damage during the war there followed a time of 
rapid change with education, health and socio-economic 
development. Cultural change was noted by a number of post-war 
scholars including Forge (1971), Tuzin (1976), Brison (1992, 1995), 
Leavitt (1989), Stephenson 1995, and Koczberski and Curry (1999). 

These changes could be very traumatic for the people. Bryant Allen 
has noted the increased adult death rates in various epidemics 
(smallpox, dysentery, influenza) - the unintended consequences of 
colonialism. He estimates that WWII caused a 20-30% reduction in 
the population (Allen 1989: 50). For most village men and women, 
diagnosis of illness depends more on the recent activities of the 
patient and his or her social position than on any symptoms. Allan 
argues that with increased death rates these people's world became 
more unpredictable and they seemed to lose control over illness. So 
they adopted new forms of Sorcery and Sorcery divination to better 
protect themselves in what seemed to them to be an increase in the 
level of Sorcery activity. 

4. Worldview and Traditional Beliefs 

4. 1 Traditional Beliefs . 

Sorcerers are by no means the only cause of sickness and death. 
There are believed to be various spirit beings, some of them able to 
cause illness or misfortune if ignored or disrespected. There is some 
variation in the area covered by this study, however, for example, 
Arapesh refer to masalai (walehas), bush spirits (ahiweim) and 
dwarves (maulehem, bonobanom) that can cause sickness or death 
if disturbed or if people do not announce themselves when entering 
their territory. There are also ghosts of the recent dead (segebehas) 
around village graveyards and ancestral spirits (bahlohim, bahas) 


responsible for the well-being of the clan. 4 Success and blessing 
depend on good social relations with the living and harmony between 
the living and the dead. 

The cassowary assumes great mythic importance in the area and a 
cassowary woman is believed to be the first ancestor of the Arapesh 
and other groups in the area (Mead 2002: 262; Tuzin 1980, 1997). 
The bones of the cassowary woman are thought to be the source of 
the first yams (Mead 2002: 252-3). While the the origin myths 
involving the cassowary appear to be benevolent, there is a malevolent 
dimension to the cassowary in the haus tambaran with the use of 
cassowary bones and the "muruk (cassowary) stone" in the practice 
of sanguma, as will be explained further in this paper in section 5. 

In myths and legends, certain aspects of the environment such as 
trees or rocks are believed to have been formed by a primeval 
cassowary or other supernatural forces. The land belongs to the 
ancestors, so whatever grows or lives on it must be cherished and 
be passed on to others who will come to care for the environment in 
future generations. Yet, there are dangerous, harmful places also. 
These masalai places will be deep water holes, quicksands and 
bogs, dark forests, silent waters, areas with big rocks or other unusual 
environmental features. Usually the masalai inhabiting that spot is 
named and regarded as the special masalai of that place. Mead 
says that belief in witches is "food for fancy and casual superstitious 
practice" (Mead 2002: 279) whereas belief in masalais is "the 
cornerstone of the religious system" (Mead 2002: 279). A man 
addresses the ancestors but it is the masalai who punish him if he 
fails to do so. The masalais and ancestral spirits protect the hunting 
ground, the gardens, and the water holes and the masalais punish 
those who don't observe the required taboos such as the taboo against 
menstruating women visiting a waterhole. Punishment will most likely 
result in sicknesses or trouble. 

A person's well-being depends not on the person alone but on 
relationships with other persons and with the spirits. That is a reason 
why people try to maintain good relations within their families and 


with neighbours, fulfilling their social obligations and observing taboos. 
To neglect these relationships and obligations risks illness or 
misfortune. People are believed to have a "soul" or life force (win 
or tewel in Tok Pisin) that can leave the body during dreaming and 
which departs from the body permanently at death. Some malevolent 
beings and sorcerers have power to capture a person's soul and in 
that way cause the person to suffer or die. 

4.2 Rituals and Ma gic 

Magic, usually involving spells and/or herbs or charms can range 
from love magic or spells to make pigs or gardens grow, to more 
malicious forms that may cause illness such as diarrhoea, boils, 
deformities etc, or even death. People distinguish magic from 
witchcraft and other destructive rituals such as Sorcery. Sorcery 
requires the observance of special taboos, but magic normally does 

Magical charms consist of a set of names and a series of verbal 
statements which are repeated. People offer no explanation for the 
meaning of the names and simply say they are sacred. Those who 
practise magic have to be wary lest the practitioner become the 
victim of his or her own magic. For instance, a man's own children 
may become sick if they walk or jump over the place where magic 
implements are stored. Magic can be powerful or dangerous and 
must be used with caution lest it result in unwanted consequences. 

Manuguh is a magic spell used by the Arapesh said to cause various 
kinds of illness such as paralysis, diarrhoea, urinating blood, boils on 
any part of the body, having hookworms in the stomach, deformities 
of the limbs, body shakings, the protruding of the intestine out of the 
anus, and continuous bleeding in women. A coconut or betelnut tree 
may have a spell put on it. Once a person comes to collect nuts 
from the bespelled tree, he or she comes under this spell. 

The person making magic can drink strong-tasting lemon juice 
(muchubun) to become "hot" so that the spell will take effect quickly. 
To reverse the effect of the spell, the victim would have to find the 


person responsible for the magic and apologise or do something so 
that the magic will be removed. Manuguh is not Sorcery. There 
are no taboos or other procedures to be observed when applying 
this spell. 

4.3 Cargo movements 

There have been a "plethora" of cargo cult movements throughout 
the Sepik area (Gesch 1985: 126). Gesch provides details about the 
Mt Turun movement in the 1960s and 70s and refers to 
documentation on earlier movements by Bryant Allan (Gesch 1 985: 
121) (See also Allan 1989: 63). Gesch quotes Fr Willie Morman as 
telling elders around Negri e-Yangoru, "If you drop sorcery, and cease 
disputing, then the good times will surely come" (Gesch 1 985: 126). 
Some informants told us how they believed missionary priests would 
visit cemeteries to talk to the dead and receive money in return. 

4.4 Mission influence 

Early Catholic missionaries from the Society of the Divine Word 
landed on Tumleo Island on the north coast near present-day Aitape 
in 1 896, to be joined by the Holy Spirit Sisters in 1 899. Fr. Eberhard 
Limbrock and Fr Franz Kirschbaum patrolled near our research 
area in 1912. There are other patrol reports from 1926 and 1933 
(Gibbs and Wailoni 2008: 151). Young men were brought to the 
coast for training as catechists. Intensive mission expansion came 
only after WWII. At that stage other mission groups such as the 
South Seas Evangelical Mission (SSEM) and the Assemblies of God 
were also working in the area. Most early missionaries denounced 
magic and Sorcery as being mere superstition. The Catholic 
missionaries, aided by anthropologists such as Andreas Gerstner 
(1934, 1937, 1952, 1963), tended to promote scientific views, whereas 
missions such as the SSEM attributed Sorcery to local spirits taking 
possession of individuals at the behest of the Devil (Allen 1 989: 50). 

Today people express their appreciation for mission education and 
health services. Yet, some people are loath to remain in the ward of 
a mission hospital away from the protection of their families and 
vulnerable to the attack of evil forces. People wear medals and 


carry rosary beads like charms against evil and the holy water is 
popular for keeping evil forces including Sorcerers away. One 
Catholic woman told how sorcerers, knowing that she defends her 
property with holy water, avoid coming near her house lest their 
power go "cold". 

4.5 Attitudes to Sickness and death 

Because of the integral nature of relationships with the cosmos, the 
spirit world and other human beings, people seek an explanation in 
terms of relationships when things go wrong. 

Stephen Leavitt explains the Bumbita preference for imputing 
explicitly malicious motives rather than regarding illness or dying as 
a natural consequence of living (Leavitt 1989: 323, 367). People do 
not "simply die". Because of their understanding that an individual's 
well-being depends ultimately on the mutual assistance and caretaking 
among family members, "simply dying" would imply neglect. So 
bereaved family members search for other explanations. Mead, 
writing in the 1930's says that theoretically, all deaths, even the 
deaths of the very old are laid to sorcery" (Mead 2002: 242). 

However, today people have more options to explain sickness and 
death. A woman with nursing training said that she looks for signs to 
distinguish between "ordinary" deaths and those caused by 
sanguma. Nevertheless, even when it is known that a person has 
died from pneumonia or cancer the question still arises as to why 
the victim contracted pneumonia or cancer when other people did 
not. In so-called accidents like a fall from a tree, snake bite or a car 
accident it is thought that the victim has been sorcerised or 
bewitched. 5 Even in the case of a violent death through a spear or 
bullet it is believed that the instrument would not find its mark unless 
the victim had been sorcerised or bewitched. 

In October 2008 a young man from Belegel was killed in a knife 
attack (The National 7 Nov. 2008: 10). The killing was ostensibly 
because the young man had cut down coffee trees planted by 
someone else. However, people think that the real target was the 


young man's father, and that someone has worked posin on him 
and the killing of his son was inevitable since the father was a marked 
man because of posin. Killing the son was a way to hit back at the 

Once one is marked by posin the only certainty is that misfortune 
or death will happen, not how it will happen. A young man was hired 
by another village to teach a cultural dance to young people there. 
Later in the evening they drank some beer and he collapsed and 
died beside the fireplace in the house of a friend. His family pointed 
to a burn mark on his chest and suspected that someone had mixed 
weed killer with the beer and he had been poisoned by the weed 
killer. The family does not believe the news that an autopsy was 
Cancelled because the inner organs were "already decomposed". 
When people reflected back on the young man's actions and 
relationships they realised that he had died beside the fire in the 
very house where he had caused trouble by defecating in the fireplace 
two years before. This must have been how people obtained his 
"specimen", and also gave them a motive for working posin as 
Sorcery, so that he became a marked man leading to his death through 
poison by weedkiller. 

If a person is sick for a long time and medical personnel can't find 
a solution, people will conclude that it is "sik bilongples" with the 
cause of the illness located in social relations. Koczberski and Curry, 
writing about the Wosera Abelam near Kunjingini note how ancestral 
spirits, witchcraft and magic including sorcery "are all important 
elements of everyday life believed to influence the behaviour, well- 
being and health of individuals and groups (Koczberski and Curry 

A person told us how after an argument over him receiving shell 
money, "they paid the sanguma to make me sick. I went to the 
hospital but I was not healed. I then returned to the village and gave 
them some money and after that I got well. I gave the money to 
those concerned and said that I want this worry to be straightened 
so that I won't be sick anymore". 


5. What is Sorcery, Sanguma and Witchcraft? 

Applying general terms in any cultural complex is problematic. This 
applies to terms such as "sorcery", "poison", "witchcraft", and 
"sanguma". In its wider sense, Sorcery is the use of magical power 
to influence events. The Papua New Guinea Sorcery Act (1976) 
distinguishes between "innocent" sorcery that is protective or 
curative and "evil" sorcery which is intended to produce harmful 
results. 6 In common parlance sorcery is thought to bring about illness, 
death or misfortune. However, as will be shown in examples from 
the Arapesh, good fortune may be sought also. 7 

Researchers often distinguish between sorcery involving contagious 
magic, and assault sorcery; the former utilising malevolent actions 
on the "leavings" of a person, the latter involving direct physical 
harm to the person. Writing on witchcraft among the Azande in 
West Africa, Edward Evans-Prichard distinguished sorcery and 
witchcraft in terms of the former using techniques of magic, while 
the later uses hereditary psycho-physical powers (Evans-Prichard 
1937:387). Leonard Glick provides a similar distinction while writing 
for Papua and New Guinea, "A sorcerer's capacity to harm ... 
depends on his ability to control extrinsic powers; whereas a witch, 
who can inflict sickness or death on others simply by staring at 
them or willing evil on them, possesses powers inherited or acquired 
as an intrinsic part of his or her person" (Glick 1973:182). 

Sanguma is a form of sorcery in which the sanguma person is 
thought to become invisible and force a harmful object or inject a 
harmful substance into the victim so that they get sick and/or die. In 
some places the sanguma is thought to take animal form. 8 

The term "poison" also can have several meanings. One, closer to 
the standard English use of the term, refers to a toxic substance 
which if ingested will cause sickness or death. 9 At other times the 
term posin is used as a Tok Pisin expression for Sorcery. In Pidgin 
usage in the Sepik today, the term posin most often refers to the 
"leavings" or doti or "specimen" of a person (what Margaret Mead 


terms "exuviae", using latinate vocabulary), bound up in a packet of 
leaves, which will be used in the practice of Sorcery. 

In the Sepik, sorcerers are not sangumas. Sorcerers are real men 
who learn their trade "hands on". Sangumas are humans who during 
an extended period of initiation are said to learn the ability to take on 
spirit form to become invisible. Finer distinctions may be made using 
terms from the local language, however, because we are dealing 
with multiple languages, in this paper we use the capitalised term 
"Sorcery" as an English term for the whole complex, and the Tok 
Pisin terms posin man, sanguma man and sanguma meri to refer 
to sorcery using contagious magic, males involved in assault sorcery 
and females involved in assault sorcery or "witchcraft" respectively. 10 

6. Wokim Posin 

Talk about posin is part of everyday life for the Plains Arapesh. 
However, such talk takes on greater importance if there is a prolonged 
sickness, a sudden death, or some other tragedy. Posin provides an 
explanation for such happenings even among those with a tertiary 
education. Some Christians think of misfortunes as "punishment from 
God", but in the church context most remain silent, because they 
suspect that the talk of posin might well be true. 

Plains Arapesh identify three different types of sorcery which they 
call posin. These are ouhluh wichang and atiglineige (Gibbs and 
Wailoni 2008). Ouluh refers to the bundled specimen consisting of 
"leavings" that is used in the main act of posin. Wichang is linked 
to the aformentioned posin. It is optional and can bring both 
benevolent and malevolent effects. Atiglineige is an optional practice 
for capturing the "soul" or spirit of the victim. These types of Sorcery 
or posin should be distinguished from other magical practices such 
as putting people's specimens in masalai places and in a wild taro 
plant (known to cause an itchy skin reaction). A sorcerer may 
perform such magic but this is not Sorcery. Sorcery as posin among 
the Arapesh involves a complex procedure requiring taboos and 
using special substances with the intention that the victim will become 


ill and in many cases - die. Materials used in posin include genital 
fluids, remains of food, clothes or pieces of cloth that have deposits 
of perspiration on them, mustard that has been used for chewing or 
betel nut husks that have saliva on them, nail parings or anything 
else that is believed to have been somehow part of a person. The 
most effective specimens used in such posin are genital fluids. The 
use of material that has been part of a person can be a source of 
suspicion and fear below the surface of everyday life. One has to 
be cordial to everybody because one never knows whether an 
offended person might already have taken your posin (materials 
such as those listed above) and could pass it on to a posin man 
(yowepineim). It also helps motivate people to maintain good 
relations and for parents to teach children about the obligations that 
they will be expected to fulfil throughout their lifetime. They also 
tell them of the places they should not visit "because a posin man 
lives there". Any accumulated wealth is to be used for feasts, bride 
price, etc. Failure to do so may bring dire consequences. One never 
knows the consequences of conflict. For example an argument with 
one's mother could lead to mother's brother having a reason to give 
your specimen to the posin men. The researchers noted that this 
also makes for very clean villages, with no food scraps or rubbish 
lying around as is common in some other parts of PNG. 

The materials collected must be kept in a dry place, away from 
water, from menstruating women, and certain plants. Mead identified 
other examples of such materials as well as those that it is not 
possible to use for posin (Mead, 1940:44). The symptoms 
experienced by the victim are affected by the material that has 
been used in posin. For instance, head pains are associated with 
hair having been used as a specimen, and so on. The materials 
collected are then bound into small bundles with nettle leaves. Other 
special leaves that cause itchiness such as giglagih, and a type of 
fern called sehleoh are also used. Such leaves are believed to cause 
irritating effects on the sorcerised victim. 

The bundled specimen(s) is/are hung over a fire to be smoked. This 
may take six days to six months or even longer depending on how 


quickly the posin men want the victim or victims to suffer, get sick 
or die. The heating is usually done either in an isolated location in 
the forest or in a hidden location such as a cave. Those who practise 
Sorcery usually work in a group. There is somebody responsible for 
heating the specimen and there is a guard or guards who are on the 
lookout and somebody who will actually "kill" the specimen. Posin 
men must observe certain taboos. For instance, they must not bathe 
or drink water. If one smokes he must do it away from the fire. The 
person who is heating the specimen or tending the fire must have 
someone special to look after him. This person should be single. 
Married men stay apart from their wives at this time lest they 
become "cold". Above all, posin men must stay away from wamileb 
plants lest which have a strong "cooling" effect. 

Ahih is a red powder used with the ouluh in sorcery practice to 
make the person become sick and die. One interviewee explained 
how the ouluh is like a car and the ahih the battery which provides 
power so that the car will start. Ahih is lime made from burning the 
leg bones of a warrior or a man who was feared. The bones are 
burned until they are reduced to ashes. This ahih is made by 
specialists and usually stored in bamboos to be used with the ouluh. 
Sap from a vine is mixed with the lime to make it turn a red colour. 
(More recently some sorcerers use red paint bought from stores in 
Wewak.) Sago thorns (wehas), a sewing needle or a sharp piece of 
coconut broom are dipped into the ahih and thrust into the bundled 
specimen (ouluh). A storm with thunder and lightning occurring 
soon after this act is seen as a sure sign that the ahih has been 
effective in powering the specimen. 

While the specimen is being heated spells are used to lure the soul 
or life force (miching) of the victim to the fire for it to be physically 
killed. To "kill the poison" means to lay the bound specimen on a 
piece of wood and beat it with a hard instrument. As he beats the 
specimen, the posin man will call the name of the victim's clan 
(similar to the way a clan name is called when a pig is delivered to 
a village for a feast). Then the specimen is hammered and thrown 
into a container. Calling the name is thought to attract the miching 


of the victim. To have an animal such as a lizard or an insect 
appearing will be seen as embodying the miching of the victim. The 
posin man will call the name of the victim and ask this animal or 
insect to enter a container such as a piece of bamboo. Once trapped 
inside, the miching, which is the "soul" or life force of the person, 
will then be treated just like the specimen and "killed". Healing can 
only take place if the animal or insect representing the miching of 
the victim is released. Once the miching is released, the specimen 
is put in the water where it becomes "cold" and loses its power to 
be used again in sorcery. The posin men must undergo purification 
rituals, lest they be haunted by the ghost of the victim(s). 

Wichang and atiglineige are optional practices accompanying 
sorcery using ouhluh. Wichang is swung in a circular motion over 
the container containing the heated specimen. The victim's name is 
called and requests made for things that people desire. For instance, 
if there is a land dispute, a request will be made for one party to 
leave the village for good. Wichang might also be used to convince 
a pig owner to accept a cheap offer and sell it willingly. It serves 
other purposes as well such as motivating people to contribute to 
bride price or for winning court cases or cancelling them. Wichang 
appears to be a form of magic associated with making posin, 
however, the Arapesh think of it as posin, not mere magic. Some 
people move to towns physically far away from the ESP. However, 
physical distance and cultural distance are not the same and it is 
believed that posin and wichang performed in the ESP can affect 
people living anywhere in PNG or even overseas. 

Atiglineige is used to capture the miching of those whose specimens 
cannot be collected through "leavings". The posin man has to drink 
bitter lemon juice to become "hot" before performing atiglineige. 
A small piece of wild taro stalk or the red coconut tree root 
{many ibel) is put on a path normally used by the victim so he or she 
will step over it enabling the sorcerer to capture his or her miching. 
The object stepped over is secured and rubbed with the same red 
lime (ahih) used with a specimen. It is believed that the victim will 
die when the atiglineige is brought to be hammered at the fireplace 


and thrown in the container used for posin. Accompanied by 
wichang, posin men can put in requests for the manner in which 
the victim will die. 

Posin men have a reputation but no status. However, some 
established leaders are suspected of having knowledge of Sorcery 
and links with posin men. The posin man is hired and paid. One 
informant said that he supported Sorcery as it provided a good means 
of income. All items used have to be bought, but the transactional 
aspect is highlighted when the specimen has been heated and the 
miching captured. Money (traditionally suluh shell rings) is brought 
with other requests for what they want the Wichang to do for them. 
The posin man expects payment before the specimen is killed. If 
relatives of the victim discover in time, they can pay to have the 
miching of the victim released. The payment will only be one part 
of a process that will involve reconciliation, making amends and 
other necessary peace settlements. 

In 1993, the sitting member of parliament Hon John Jaminan decided 
to act against the posin men because he felt that they were causing 
people to become ill and that they were an obstacle to development 
in the district. He says, "I saw it (posin) as an evil act and so I had 
to move to protect the lives of many people against this evil. . . . 
Sorcery is one of the forces that gets humans down and stops human 
development." He called in a squad of police from outside the 
province who went from village to village throughout West Yangoru 
to find out who were the posin men in each village. They rounded 
them up, forced them to hand in any implements they had. ' ' Jaminan 
lost the subsequent election, but is still proud of what he did. He 
claims: "I have never feared Sorcerers and I have never been 
attacked by sorcerers of any kind." 

7. Sanguma man 

Sorcery as sanguma is not practised in the West Yangoru District, 
though sanguma men from other areas sometimes visit the area. 
We encountered sanguma men in the area around Urigembi and 
further west of Maprik around Drekikir. Like posin, sanguma 


provides an explanation for such illness, death and misfortune. Most 
Christians are fearful of it, and try to preserve good relations so that 
they will not be the target of sanguma. 

Traditionally all men underwent initiation in which, amongst other 
things, a man was taught to bleed his penis for purposes of 
purification {waswas). Part of the blood was saved in a coconut 
shell to become his "bodyguard" to warn its owner in case of danger. 
Sanguma men undergo a further lengthy initiation marked by 
confinement, food taboos, and rituals involving drinking of body fluids 
from the dead. Concoctions are made from fermenting various plants 
and insects including a mushroom or fungus found deep in the forest 
(Stephenson 2001: 191) along with the umbilical cord or placenta 
from a newly born child (the woman is paid). I2 The mixture is heated, 
and ashes and this mix will be used to give sanguma men magical 
powers. In ingesting the lime-like ashes they are said to "eat 

Some of the mixture is kept as a liquid and this is said to have the 
power to "close the ears" of the sanguma men (they are deaf to 
any call to change their mind) so they are like possessed persons 
who can kill. In fact, in a sense, they are empowered by the spirit of 
the dead coming from the liquid or powder ingested. Rubbing the 
liquid on their skin is said to make them invisible. 13 They must follow 
certain taboos such as not sleeping with wives or eating food 
prepared by women, not holding a child, avoiding certain types of 
bananas and abstaining from cold water and from cassowary 
meat. 14 The initiands go out for their "practical" work which is to 
kill a child or a pregnant woman. People interviewed said that the 
death of young children and pregnant women is "proof that initiation 
still takes place. Sanguma men described their going out to kill as 
being like going to "fight". Sanguma attack is a physical attack, 
usually by a group of sanguma men. During the attack the victim is 
rendered unconscious and a poisonous liquid poured into their mouth 
or injected into them in some other way. They are left to regain 
consciousness and make their way home but they have changed, 


and, if not given an antidote, will die within a few days. A woman 
described such an attack. 

"In June 1999 I was attacked by sanguma men who were 
out on their practical. I went outside the house and the 
sanguma men called me over to them. When I reached 
them, they told me to lift up my hand and they injected 
me. After that they sent me back to the house. Back in the 
house I went straight to sleep. In the morning I saw them 
standing next to the toilet. Again they called me over and 
asked if I had any bananas in the house. I quickly came 
back and cooked some bananas over the fire. When no 
one was looking, I took the bananas to them in the nearby 
bushes next to the village and they ate. I was told that in 
the early hours of the next morning around 6 o 'clock I 
was to start an argument with my husband. I was to get a 
knife and attack him and he would use the knife to kill 
me. I did as I was told. I visited the relatives and came 
back and slept. Early the next morning I started arguing 
with my husband and he saw that I had tucked the knife 
next to where I was sleeping. He quickly wrestled with me 
to get the knife but I was holding on to it tightly. For 
some reason, he thought he should use a pin to prick me 
because I was behaving so strangely. So he got a pin and 
pushed it into my upper arm. I didn 't feel anything, nor 
did I scream from pain as the pin sank deeper into my 
arm. That confirmed his suspicion that something was 
wrong. He then called out and his cousin and his wife 
came to see what was happening and confirmed that I 
had been attacked by the sanguma. My unusual behaviour 
and the pin going through my skin without causing pain 
or drawing blood made it clear to them that I had suffered 
an attack by the sanguma. They quickly searched for 
someone to give me some herbs. I had not been eating the 
food given to me, especially food with protein and that is 
another sign of a sanguma attack. They went and cut a 
special bush vine and extracted the sap. They then blew 


the sap into coconut liquid and gave it to me to drink. 
After that, I must have slept for some minutes and then I 
woke up. They asked me to recount the experience. I told 
them that there were six men who attacked me. They 
attacked me because they were new recruits out on 
training and so tested their power on me. They confused 
me with lime and then any instructions given by them were 
followed. Those that are diagnosed quickly are saved but 
others usually die. J could have died but because I drank 
the herbs the process was interrupted. They came back 
to check if everything had happened according to plan 
on that same evening I was cured. My tambu s wife was 
in the toilet at that time. They came and surrounded her. 
Somehow the village men expected it so they shouted and 
ran towards them and the sanguma men disappeared. They 
are like spirits and can trick people easily. I had been 
very rude to people while under the influence of the 
sanguma. My own father was so embarrassed that he went 
and stayed at another village. He could not believe that I 
would behave the way I did. But he didn 't know that it 
was the sanguma which was controlling me. After it was 
found out, I was forgiven. " 

The story above is typical of many stories we heard about sanguma 
attack: ingestion of a liquid which gives them power over a person, 
antisocial behaviour, refusal to eat meat or to drink liquids, divination 
using a pin and (in fortunate cases) a herbal antidote (which usually 
induces vomiting). 15 

In the account above the sanguma men are said to have been out 
on their "practical" and during that period can target people at 
random. Usually they are hired to settle personal grievances. !ft We 
heard a case where men were angry with another man so they 
hired sanguma to kill his sister so as to hurt him. Normally sanguma 
will not kill for no reason. They only kill when one has wronged 
someone and that person hires them to come and kill you or a loved 
one. So, we were told, "it is best to solve any conflicts and problems 


with other people quickly before they resort to using sanguma." 
We found differences between sanguma in Urigembi and in Drekikir. 
In Urigembi the sanguma use a "muruk stone" to point or swing at 
a person in order to disorient them or render them unconscious. 
Sanguma men are known as maienduo (literally: sanguma man). 
The head sanguma is known as a yamianduo (literally: muruk/ 
cassowary man). 

Around Drekikir, spirit men are called arukwine (a term from the 
Warn language referring to a powerful mushroom). They are 
believed to have the power to assume the form of animals. There 
men described to us the use of a sanguma "spear". The spear, 
which is a short piece of bamboo or hollowed out human or 
cassowary bone, is charged with lemon juice and the lime made 
from the decayed matter from dead bodies is thrown over the shoulder 
of the sanguma man as he calls the name of the victim (Stephenson 
2001: 193). We were also told that the sanguma man throws a 
dead man's finger bone in the direction of the victim. 

Sanguma are said to prey on the weak. Many people told stories of 
how they must watch carefully over the sick, especially those in 
hospital, lest a sanguma assume the form of the sick person and 
take their place while the real sick person is taken away to die at 
the hands of the sanguma men. There are other precautions taken 
such as having a menstruating woman jump over a new grave to 
discourage sanguma men from coming to exhume the body. 
Sanguma men who were spoken to said they did not intend to pass 
their knowledge on to their children. Sanguma might have a positive 
dimension in acting as a "policeman" in society, but they thought it is 
too dangerous and did not want to end up with empty villages. Yet, 
the belief continues, as one man said, "Indai i stap. Sanguma i stap" 
(There is death [so] there is sanguma). 

8. Sanguma meri 

While staying in the villages of West Yangoru, people would often 
refer to sanguma meri at Wingei, not far distant, but across the 
border from Arapesh-speaking people into Abelam-speaking territory. 


They were said to be very different from the Arapesh posin men. 
Abelam sanguma meri are called kwutakwa in the local language. 
They are real women who have the power in their spirit form to 
appear as animals, to pass through solid walls and to fly. Reputedly 
they feast on the bodies of the dead. They are not malicious in the 
sense of attacking people for no reason. Indeed, it is said that 
previously they used to assist men to win in battles. However, today 
they may well harm someone who would offend them, and in 
particular someone who would make them feel jealous. One woman 
said how she had been proud of her large productive garden. She 
would share food crops with some but not others. One night a pig 
broke through the fence and did a great deal of damage to her 
garden. She believes that the pig was really a sanguma woman 
who was envious of her garden and upset that she was not given 
food from it, so this person took the form of a pig and destroyed it. 

Another woman said how fearful she was because her husband 
earns a wage and people see them returning from town with bought 
store goods. She fears that a sanguma woman will be jealous of 
their good fortune at being able to buy store goods and will do harm 
to her husband or her family. She tells about one time when her 
husband was returning home and he encountered a group of women 
whom he suspected to be sanguma women. One of the women, 
who knew his father and grandfather well, led him away, picked up 
an empty beer bottle, blew into it and told him to do the same. She 
then dug a hole and buried the bottle. This was a sure sign that he 
should not talk about what he had seen. In fact he revealed this 
encounter to his wife only after the death of the old woman. People 
suspect that sanguma women are around when they see certain 
birds, especially big forest birds like horabills coming to alight in 
trees near a village. Flying squirrels (wasupiak or gwasalo) are 
another sign of their presence. These creatures are not the 
kwutakwa themselves but only a sign that the kwutakwa is around. 
They also tell stories about how when a sanguma woman bathes 
alone, it is possible to see the little creatures that live inside her 
swimming beside her. They are like little rats and they swim alongside 


her. After bathing they go back inside her vagina. It is said that her 
strength comes from these creatures. 

The power of witchcraft is thought to pass from mother to daughter. 
In the night, a mother jumps over her daughter and a form of sex 
takes place. The daughter is not aware but later finds out that she 
has extraordinary powers. She has then to observe taboos (sakrifais, 
sakrafais) for three weeks: no water aibika or pig meat. Observing 
the taboos is important lest she become deranged. After that she 
has to do her "practical", which might involve killing a newborn 
baby or a young child. 

A woman near Kunjingini told about a time when she returned at 
night from a prayer meeting bringing food with her which she shared 
with her son. On leaving the kitchen to throw away the leaves that 
had covered the food she shone her torch on the roof and noticed a 
woman there. The woman appeared to be wanting to jump down 
from the roof. She continued, 

"I screamed loudly. Our neighbours thought that my 
husband was belting me so they did not respond. 
Eventually others including my husband came and saw 
her. She was a real woman who we knew. Most probably 
she had wanted to fly but she must not have observed all 
the taboos about not eating aibika, pig meat and so on, 
so she was not able to realise her full powers. " 

They helped the woman down and she gave the excuse that she 
had "lost her way and got stuck on the roof." The woman telling of 
the experience believes that the sanguma woman, smelling the food, 
had followed her and intended to steal some but failed. Not wanting 
to embarrass the woman further she apologised to her and did not 
raise the matter again. 

People in areas frequented by sanguma women carry a means of 
protection. Some will carry a piece of ginger which is said to act as 
a "security" against harm. Others put a piece of bangwi bush vine 


in their lighted torches when travelling at night so that sanguma 
women can be seen. Christians use holy water. Some people have 
spells that are said to cause the kwu (the small animals inside her 
that give her power) to come down to the lower part of the woman's 
body. This makes movement difficult because the creature will be 
resting in her vagina, making it difficult to walk. She will have to sit 
in one place until set free by those who have cast the spell. 

Sanguma women play a significant role in the socio-spiritual universe 
of people in parts of the ESP. From a functional perspective they 
provide an explanation for misfortunes such as snake bite, falling 
from a tree, or the death of a child. But functional explanations 
cannot deal well with fears and emotions. From the viewpoint of 
gender, sanguma women offer both an excuse for women to claim 
power and a reason for men to blame women for misfortune. In our 
interviews it was only men who spoke about having killed a suspicious 
animal, only to hear the next day that a woman had died. From a 
missiological angle, sanguma women challenge Christian believers 
to enter into a deeper faith commitment so as to explain events in a 
way that takes seriously both faith and cultural sensitivities. For 
example: how should people of faith inteipret stories told in all 
seriousness about lost women found on kitchen roofs at night? What 
are we to think of parents instructing their children to avoid talking 
to or relating to older women lest these be sanguma women? How 
best should a priest or church minister officiate at a funeral of a 
woman that the community believes to be a sanguma meril 

9. Discerning and Countering Sorcery 

In the ESP, as elsewhere, it is presumed that people do not "simply 
die" and the first presumption on hearing of a death is to pursue the 
cultural ideology which considers most fatal illnesses or accidents 
as a symptom of Sorcery. The type of death and signs at funerals 
such as the state of the body or the movement of fireflies may 
provide hints as to what sort of Sorcery was involved. There are 
other culturally specific rites of discernment. These include having 
people step on the lower leg of the corpse and look for a sign on the 


body such as the appearance of blood (Leavitt 1995: 356) or holding 
a length of bamboo which will move when the name of the Sorcerer 
is called. However, the process by which Sorcery accusations are 
confirmed may be lengthy and inconclusive. Symptoms at death are 
not as important as social relationships and the activities of the 
deceased prior to the illness or death. 

The discernment may take years as relatives gain some emotional 
distance and take a wider, long-term view of an event which is part 
of a complex of social relationships. We encountered a number of 
examples where an apparently innocent person died as a result of 
revenge on a parent, brother or other close family member. For 
Christians to stay detached from such intrigue risks alienating 
themselves from family and their cultural ties. Death is still the most 
unevangelised dimension of life in Melanesia (Gibbs 2006: 97). 

Efforts to counter or protect oneself from Sorcery are commonplace. 
Some Christians from Pentecostal or Revival churches are at pains 
to avoid anything associated with "magic", however, Catholics tend 
to have a more flexible approach when it comes to symbols or 
charms. A church leader at Kunjingini said: 

"We have protection such as ginger, lime and tree bark 
that we use to keep them away. When we had a land 
dispute with another village we planted ginger and 
menstrual blood as protection on the main roads around 
the village that we thought the sangumas would take. We 
are also carrying tree bark as kol. This is usually chewed 
with betelnut to keep the sangumas away. During the land 
dispute my children were sick because of the sangumas. I 
crushed the tree bark and ginger and mixed that in my 
children's tea for them to drink. I sometimes crushed those 
things and blew the mixture on their bodies. At other times 
these things were burnt in the fire and the sick were 
brought next to it so as to be smoked by the fire. This will 
cool the effects of the sanguma. " 


An elderly Catholic woman said she was not afraid of sangumas 
because her house was protected by holy water sprinkled liberally 
around it and she felt shielded from harm by the rosary beads she 
hung around her neck. 

10. Attempting to Understand Sorcery 

10. 1 From a medical point of view 

The phenomena we have described here are difficult to explain 
from a medical point of view. The leading surgeon at Boram General 
Hospital in Wewak said that in her many years serving at the main 
hospital she has never encountered a case of foreign objects made 
of bone, bamboo or wire having been inserted into a person as 
allegedly happens with sanguma (Sr Joseph Taylor. Pers. 
Communication, Wewak 6 June 2007). The writers have viewed 
implements taken from accused sorcerers and kept as "evidence" 
by police, however there is no evidence that such items ever 
"worked" from a medical-scientific point of view. 

Some interviewees were of the opinion that it is helpful to have a 
medical opinion: 

"I had a mother at home who had liver cancer. Everybody 
at home was talking about posin. Then I took her to the 
hospital and in the hospital they said she had cancer. So 
after that they said she had cancer. " 

So, the medical explanation at times will help change the way people 
talk about illness and death. They can come to understand that "Sik 
bilong em i winim marasin" (The illness is not able to be cured by 
medication). However, there are also cases where a person is sick 
- they look sick and feel sick, but then all the medical tests don't 
reveal anything. Medically there is no explanation. That is when 
people will start talking about "sik bilong pies" and about sorcery. 

Bernard Narokobi, in a paper prepared for the Law Reform 
Commission of Papua New Guinea (1978) is of the opinion that "it 


is futile to try to establish scientifically whether sorcery works as it 
is reputed to do, or whether it is all a hoax instigated by big and self- 
seeking men as a way to hold others down" (Law Reform 
Commission 1978: 14). He says that sorcery helps establish the 
reason for the happening of an event, whether there is a medical 
explanation or not. Sorcery reaches beyond the empirical since it is 
also a form of "inner violence" that unleashes the inner consciousness 
of people's deep fears. 

10.2 From a cultural perspective 

Nigel Stephenson points out that for the villagers, Sorcery is an 
indisputable fact and a reality. It is undeniable that people of all ages 
and both sexes die. It is also a fact, borne out by witnesses, that 
some people turn their hand to Sorcery. The two fields of evidence 
are connected and a causal link created. This logic is supported by 
natural signs that people interpret in certain ways. For them signs, 
such as lights, bird calls, etc, amount to proof of what they already 
suspect is true (Stephenson 2001: 190). One person told us, "Of 
course we believe in germs, but this belief in kwutakwa is in our 
blood. Ninety percent of the people here know that spirits exist." 

Stephen Leavitt, who worked among the Bumbita near Maprik 
argues that maybe sorcery fears are entirely reasonable in societies 
where people really perform Sorcery and where the cultural system 
admits no readily available alternative explanation for death. 
Compare, for example, Sorcery with "mugging" in America. If 
Sorcery is practised and anyone can be attacked, is it not reasonable, 
then, to fear it? (Leavitt 1989: 377). The same goes for mugging. 
Whether or not Sorcery is involved in a particular death, there is 
always a real possibility that it may be. This possibility, along with a 
cultural ideology which regards most fatal illness as a symptom of 
Sorcery attack, makes people's fears understandable. 

Leavitt further argues that since from a cultural perspective people 
do not "simply die", then accusations of sorcery defend the 
deceased's close family against a fear that it might be actual 
interpersonal relations among close family members that have caused 


the death. The agent of death is better located in an external 
malevolent figure - the Sorcerer. 

A common theme emerging through all our enquiries is jealousy. 
Whether better termed envy or craving - "jealousy" could arise 
from someone else being given a bigger shell ring or more money at 
a public ceremony, someone having more or better land or gardens, 
someone having resources to buy store goods, or a person being 
given employment in preference to another. Whatever the incident 
that leads to jealousy, the end result is a sense of offence and 
disharmony in social relationships that leads to accusations of Sorcery. 
This was the logic followed by a woman declaring that she was 
wasting her time taking her child for medical attention at the clinic 
while a dispute between two members of her lineage remained 
unresolved (Koczberski and Curry 1999: 238). 

10.3 From a Christian faith perspective 

Christians believe in the non-empirical, and in spirits both good and 
evil, however the way one encounters those spirits can be different 
in different cultures. Stories from the New Testament have Jesus 
casting out demons from people who today by Western medical 
standards would be diagnosed as epileptic or bipolar (See Mark 5:1- 
20). Some churches tend to follow the Biblical worldview, 
understanding Sorcery as the work of Satan and sanguma men and 
women as demonic. 

As part of this study a group of eight Catholic priests (seven national 
men from the Sepik area) responded to a questionnaire. In response 
to the question: "I think the following are like the sort of demon 
possession Jesus used to cast out", with a choice for them to mark 
posin, sanguma or witchcraft, one marked the box for po sin, four 
the sanguma box and six the box for witchcraft. Obviously the 
priests see New Testament stories of casting out demons more in 
terms of sanguma thanpas/w and more in terms of sanguma women 
(witchcraft) than sanguma men. Some Christians approach these 
phenomena from a psycho-spiritual viewpoint. From this perspective, 
if one gives space to fear, then the power of evil and destructive 


thoughts and feelings can enter and nurture that fear. Faith helps 
the mind control fear and jealousy, thus countering the power of evil 
by goodness and love. Usually this viewpoint is complemented by a 
medical perspective so that people have an alternative to posin or 
sanguma for explaining sickness and death. 

In our experience in the ESP most Catholics subscribe to the 
prevailing cultural ideology, but combine traditional and Christian 
means of dealing with it. For example they will bring ginger or tree 
bark and ask the Christian prayer leaders to pray over them before 
using them as protection. Sorcerers acknowledge the power of 
Christian faith. When asked why his methods did not work with a 
devout Christian, a posin man responded "Paia bilong mipela em 
kol long emV (He made our fires cold!). 

11. Social and pastoral implications 

The Catholic priests were asked to complete a short questionnaire. 
In their responses most agree that Sorcery as posin, sanguma and 
witchcraft have power, but they feel that Christian faith is more 
powerful. Yet they also agree that Sorcery poses a real threat to 
people today, including Christians. All but one said he had personal 
experience of at least one form of Sorcery and all said they know of 
people who have had experience of Sorcery. Three said that they 
knew of people in their parish who had died from Sorcery or sanguma 
and the majority had been asked to pray with people or to bless 
people concerned about Sorcery. One priest responded: "I personally 
find it very difficult because this posin thing is deeply involved in 
the culture. People practise posin to gain prestige, a big name, riches 
and so forth." From the responses to the questionnaire it is apparent 
that Sorcery is an issue for these churchmen. 

Sorcery impacts on society in various ways. We highlight three here. 
Firstly belief in Sorcery builds on threats, intimidation and distrust 
and may in turn contribute to the presence of such negative social 
factors. One never knows who has a specimen of yours that can be 
given to posin men. People live in fear that someone will attack 
them and inject them with poison. Parents tell their children, "ivb 


ken go long hap - posin man i stap" (Don't go there - a Sorcerer 
is there!). 

Secondly, belief in Sorcery discourages people from investing 
themselves and their resources in projects that would lead to 
development and human welfare. If one has more education, more 
possessions, or more power, others will easily become jealous and 
one may well be the target of Sorcery. Hence, it is safer to remain 
with the crowd rather than to get ahead. Politics is seen as the most 
effective way of getting ahead, yet there is a saying about elections 
in the ESP: Wanpela man mas dai bilong opim rot long ol i 
singautim spirit (A man must die for the spirit to work). People 
believe that one or more people will die (from Sorcery) before there 
is a winner in the election. Politics is about power and power has a 
sinister dimension. 

Thirdly, belief in Sorcery acts as a controlling force -- what is often 
termed a "policeman" in society. Police can have both desirable 
and disastrous effects. East Sepik villages appear tidy and clean 
with no rubbish or food scraps. This is just one indication of how 
fear of Sorcery can influence people's behaviour. It can reduce 
theft, and other antisocial behaviour as well. Unfortunately, as 
traditional beliefs change, some young people are bringing sanguma 
beliefs into "raskolism" (criminal behaviour) and assault. Young 
criminals enter into pacts with sanguma men in their attempts to 
become invisible, and in turn they concoct new mixes for sanguma 
from industrial waste such as old battery acid (Stephenson 1995: 
192). Just as traditionally sanguma threatened to subvert village 
people's existence from the inside, so now modernity with its illusion 
of wealth and prosperity leaves many village people politically and 
culturally disorientated and dependent (Stephenson 1995: 193). 

Belief in Sorcery also has pastoral implications. We develop four 

Firstly, most national priests, sisters and Catholic church leaders we 
spoke with think that Sorcery should not be simply ignored. It is an 


issue to contend with pastorally and this should not be denied. One 
of the priest respondents to the questionnaire - an expatriate 
missionary - wrote how as a young missionary he had tried to 
convince people that there was no truth to Sorcery and that their 
fear was groundless. After more experience in PNG he has changed 
his approach to one of helping people find strength in prayer and the 
power of Christ over evil. Members of Evangelical and Pentecostal 
churches tend to see Sorcerers as being in league with the Devil. 
Their strong stand against Sorcery reinforces the conviction that 
Sorcery should not be treated lightly. 

Christian tradition has a long history of dealing with good and evil. It 
is no stranger to the non-empirical world and spirits of the living and 
of the dead. A national sister in Wewak spoke of the importance of 
disciplining the mind and heart. She said how random thoughts and 
fears can too easily leave one vulnerable to powerful outside forces 
- possibly those coming from a Sorcerer. People need to learn that 
if a thought or inclination comes seemingly from nowhere that they 
should bring faith to bear before following through on it. This is a 
discipline that a person of faith has to learn. The advice integrates 
well with what Christian spirituality terms "discernment of spirits". 
As people mature spiritually they become more aware of the interior 
movements of their mind and heart. A "good" spirit brings one to a 
peaceful and joyful decision. A "bad" spirit leads to conflict and 
uneasiness. In the Catholic tradition, this discernment forms an 
important part of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. In 
Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions it is referred to in terms of 
holy and unholy spirits discerned through the power of the Holy 
Spirit. In some churches the outcome is "spiritual warfare" (Gibbs 
2005: 1 8). However one may conceive of it, determining from what 
spirit impulses emanate is at the heart of the pastoral advice offered 
by the sister in Wewak. 

Secondly, we refer back to the words of the elderly woman in the 
introduction to this paper. She is of the opinion that if she loves and 
respects others then she does not need to be concerned about Sorcery. 
Sorcery thrives on jealousy, revenge and attempts to dominate others 


through fear. Such attitudes are not only socially counter-productive 
but are also the antithesis of the Christian love ethic. Following the 
logic of her argument, if Christian evangelisation would be successful 
and Christian communities became a reality there would be no need 
or concern for Sorcery. Christians have a mission to proclaim the 
reign of God seen in love, joy and right relations (Rom 14:17). 
However, in reality, Christian teaching too often instils fear with 
accusations of depravity and threats of hellfire. Following imposed 
rules and performing external rituals out of fear is little different 
from the way of life that Christian faith claims to supersede. A 
positive pastoral approach will be liberating and will stress that as 
children of the God of life we are called to live that life to the full. 

Thirdly, we need alternatives to sorcery both functionally and in a 
psycho-spiritual sense. Sorcery fulfils in society a function of 
explaining why people die and helps people gain a sense that there 
is some control over misfortune. If Sorcery is undesirable, then what 
can take its place? It is one thing to have a squad of police go 
around seizing lime containers and other implements from those 
thought to be sorcerers, but another thing to bring about an attitude 
change so that people don't wish to hire sorcerers to resolve issues. 
This is where Christian "movements" can play a part in bringing 
about a change of attitude. There are the Legion of Mary, Divine 
Mercy, Charismatic Renewal, Bible-based evangelisation and 
Pentecostal and revival movements. However, preaching about a 
vengeful God may be a functional substitute for sorcery as an 
explanation for misfortune, but this may have little advantage over 
Sorcery from a psycho-spiritual perspective. Control by force and 
fear are seldom liberating. Moreover, missionaries and church leaders 
have done little as yet to develop a helpful theology of death in 
PNG. What is the destiny of the ancestors? What happens to the 
ghost of the deceased? Hospitals provide medicine and care, but 
once a person dies, the scene abruptly changes to one dealing with 
spirits of the dead and traditional obligations and taboos (Gibbs 2006: 
84-88). Until Christians develop a culturally sensitive pastoral 
theology of death, little will change with regards to Sorcery as an 
explanation for death. 

Fourthly, the future of Sorcery belief and practice depends a lot on 
the education of future generations. But will education result in what 
Desmond Tutu calls "religious schizophrenia"? Many young people 
today feel alienated from their traditions, yet have been taught to 
fear Sorcery. Sorcery beliefs left unchallenged may easily be 
transformed into occult practices and "blackpower", as has happened 
in some secondary schools including Passam National High School 
in the East Sepik (Hayes, 2000). From the perspective of post- 
Enlightenment secular education, Sorcery and witchcraft are reduced 
to "a trait of primitive people which will disappear with 
Westernization" (Hill 1996: 328). But history is revealing the 
limitations of that perspective. Modern education has little room for 
Sorcery, nor for principalities and powers that are of concern in 
Paul's letter to the Colossians. Ultimately Sorcery beliefs are cultural 
variations on the age-old problem of evil. It is not so much a matter 
of dismissing Sorcery as mere superstition or thinking that conversion 
will mean the substitution of a Christian way for the tradition. Rather, 
the Christian response must be to engage with the beliefs and 
practices in question so that people, young and old, can come to see 
"evils" such as sickness, death and misfortune through the eyes of 


1 The paper does not deal with beliefs from other parts of the Sepik such 

as the pukpuk kanu (crocodile canoe) of the Sepik River. 

2 The writers were supported by the Melanesian Institute. We also thank 

all those who offered hospitality and who were willing to share their 
ideas and experiences. Others helped correct earlier drafts of this paper. 
Some informants requested anonymity, so names or details that might 
lead to their identity will not appear in the text. 

3 (Accessed 26.12.08) 

4 There are also Culture Heroes such as Unaluh and her two sons whom 

people refer to during feasts and other celebrations, and a Supreme 


being (Echoweih) who was thought to exist but has little influence in 
people's lives. 

5 "Sickness and death have a predominantly social component. People are 

not so interested in what a person may just have died from, as they are 
in who might be responsible for the death, who set off the chain of 
causes resulting in that death. Someone may fall from a tree and die, 
and a Warn will be quite aware that the fall caused that death. But what 
is of concern to him is what, or, better put, who ultimately set off this 
fall" (Translated from German. See Stephenson 1995: 1 82). 

6 The Act notes that "sorcery" includes "witchcraft, magic, enchantment, 

puri purl, mura mura dikana, vada, mea meet, sanguma or malira 
whether or not connected with or related to the supernatural". 

7 The diversity of understandings is brought out in a comment by Nigel 

Stephenson about a trans-cultural sorcery mediation involving villages 
from the Warn, Urat, Muhiang and Bumbita language groups after a 
series of deaths in the wider area: "What made it interesting was the 
fact that the participants had first to create an etiology of sorcery 
because it showed that the different groups had quite diverse views 
about sorcery methods and the kinds of death they produced" 
(Stephenson, Personal Communication 27 December, 2008). 

8 In some parts of Papua New Guinea, particularly the Highlands (Simbu), 

the term "sanguma" is used for a form of witchcraft using psychic or 
occult power to harm, rather than employing physical objects or 
substances. For further discussion on the term "sanguma", see 

9 This is the sort of poison referred to by Stephenson (2001 : 192-3) in the 

form of battery acid or weedkiller. 

10 We have chosen not to use the English term "witch". People have terms 
in their own language for various approximations to this concept, but 
when using Tok Pisin, they use the term sanguma meri. 

1 1 We were told that the posin men were also forced to drink a "tea" which 

unknown to them contained traces of wamileb leaves and menstrual 
blood - both substances with very strong "cooling" powers. 


1 2 One of the ingredients is from a vine that when used under water can 
stun or paralyse fish so they come to the surface and can be caught 

13 Allen tells of a case where this knowledge was being used by young 
men in an effort to become invisible so they could break into premises 

14 The spirit of the cassowary is important, especially in the Urigembi 
area, hence the taboo on killing and eating it. 

1 5 See Gesch 1 985: 1 93- 1 99 for discussion on the social dynamics of sorcery 

and sanguma in the Yangoru area. Gesch typifies sanguma as a kind of 
"bush hysteria". 

1 6 If not paid properly by the man hiring them, they may end up killing that 
person, who would now be indebted to them. 

Some terms used 

In Melanesian Pidgin: 


posin man 
sanguma man 
sanguma meri 
sik bilong pies 

In Arapesh: 




quality of taking away power 

spirits that inhabit waterholes and sacred places, 

also clan spirits 




practice of or the one who practices assault sorcery 

man who practices assault sorcery 

woman who practices assault sorcery, a witch 

illness with no scientific medical explanation 

life force or soul 

life force or soul 

red lime made from human bones used in sorcery 
bush spirits 

a type of sorcery using a taro stalk or red coconut 
tree root 


b ah I o him 

ancestral spirits 


ancestral spirits 




a leaf that causes itchiness 


a spell using words 


red coconut tree root used as atiglineige 




life force of a person equivalent to soul 




a dog, in sorcery it refers to the sorcerer who looks 

after the others 


a type of plant that is also used to counteract sorcery 


"specimen" from a person 


ghosts of the recent dead 


dried ferns 


traditional shell money (ring) 


a type of lizard 


masalai spirits 


a type of plant that neutralises the implements or 

agents of sorcery 


plural form of wamibel 


sago thorns coated with lime (ahih) 


a type of grass used in the type of sorcery known as 



In Abelam language 


protective bush vine 


flying squirrel 


small animals living inside a sanguma woman 


sanguma woman or witch 


flying squirrel 

In Worn language (near Drekikir) 


A mushroom, also name for a sanguma man 

In Boikin language: 


sanguma man 


cassowary man 



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